clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Pennywise From ‘It’ Is a Perfect Movie Monster

All of the reasons why the killer clown belongs next to Jason, Freddy, Leatherface, and Michael Myers in the horror HOF

Pennywise from ‘It’ Dan Evans Illustration

The first 10 minutes of the new It are, without question, the most enjoyable first 10 minutes of any movie I’ve seen this year. They begin with Bill—who we come to learn is the de facto leader of the Losers’ Club, the group at the center of the movie—building a paper boat for Georgie, his darling little brother. Georgie, 7, takes the boat outside, sets it into a flow of rain runoff, and then bounces along behind it as it floats down the block. Eventually, it gets washed into a storm drain, and that’s where the movie really takes off.

As Georgie peeks down into the drain, Pennywise pops up. Let me tell you this: I watched the original TV miniseries for It when it first came out in 1990, and then I watched it again not that long ago when the promo posters and trailers for the 2017 It started populating the internet. Tim Curry’s version of Pennywise was excellent and cool and definitely creepy, in that very specific way that a clown trying to eat children can be such things. But the new version—Bill Skarsgard’s version—whoo boy. He’s incredible, and unnerving, and terrifying, and excellent, and exactly modern. Skarsgard stripped away all of the silliness and left only the most rotten parts, which was for sure the right way to play it. (The most apt comparison would be to say that Curry’s Pennywise is to Skarsgard’s Pennywise what Jack Nicholson’s Joker was to Heath Ledger’s Joker.) (Though Heath Ledger’s Joker is far more nuanced than the new Pennywise is.)

In the film, Pennywise and Georgie, as in the original TV-movie version, have an entire conversation while Pennywise is down in that sewer. And during it, Pennywise bounces among being intimidating, clever, disgusting, and horrifying, and he does so with an almost unconscionable ease. It was incredible to watch, and also incredible to hear. (Tim Curry’s Pennywise had a very distinct and discernible American accent, but the new Pennywise sounds like something that I don’t think anything I’ve ever heard in a movie before.)

I don’t want to push too far into telling you all of the things that happen in the scene, but just know that when it ended my whole entire everything felt tense and knotted up and all I could do was whisper, “... Goddamn,” to myself. Meanwhile, my wife, who watched everything unfold through her fingers, asked if we could leave the theater, which she hadn’t asked me in more than a decade. (The last time was right after that meat-hook scene in the 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.)

It’s hard to say a particular movie monster is exactly perfect, given that there are so many tiny pieces that go into making such a claim. It is, however, a manageable-enough task to argue whether a movie monster is “a version of perfect,” or “a level of perfect,” or “belongs alongside the greatest movie monsters.” For that to happen, a movie monster simply needs to check off the appropriate boxes in the Movie Monster Grading Rubric, which is a thing that I just made up right now. And that’s what we’ll do for the rest of this article: try to figure out if Pennywise belongs in that class of perfect movie monsters (since this is his first movie proper).

As a matter of scorekeeping, let’s say that there are eight rules in place for creating an ideal movie monster, and any movie monster who can reasonably check off at least seven of the boxes gets to be in that group (alongside Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, Leatherface, Brundlefly, and the Thing). Anyone who doesn’t, can’t.

Leatherface Bryanston Pictures

Rule 1: A good movie monster should be exactly that: a monster. It can’t just be a regular human* who is very mean.

To be clear: A movie monster can have once been a human, but the monster can’t just be the regular human version of the original person. The only exception that can be made here is Leatherface, because you should always make an exception for anyone who wears a mask made out of pieces of faces of people he’s killed. Pennywise is good here. Check mark.

*Or an alien. Aliens are aliens, not monsters.

Michael Myers Compass International

Rule 2: A good movie monster should have an interesting backstory.

One important thing to note here is that sometimes no backstory at all is the most interesting kind of backstory. Sometimes it’s fun to just be like, “There is no explanation. There is only terror and blood,” like what the Halloween series did with Michael Myers. He started murdering when he was 6 years old, then got sent off to a sanitarium, then broke out and started murdering again. We never got to fully learn why he was murdering, only that he was murdering and that he would murder forever.

(Also, just so we all agree that Michael Myers didn’t break Rule 1: It seems a lot like Myers is just a regular [albeit super-strong] human. If you poke around, though, you can find lots of bits about how he’s the actual boogeyman, unable to be killed by “bullets, stab wounds or fire.” So he’s fine. He didn’t break that rule.)

Regarding Pennywise, I’m not sure how to play this one. In It, they don’t really go too far into his backstory, save to say that he appears every 27 years. Is that enough exposition for it to be an explanation? No, right? That said, is it too much exposition for it to be a nonexplanation? Yes, right? So I don’t know what to do. As you’re watching the movie, it feels like a natural-enough way to handle things because kids in real life rarely care about the particulars of how they’ve arrived into a situation, they care about only the situation at hand. So I think it’s fine. Plus, the book goes all the way into things, so if you really want to get into arguing, then you could always just fall back on that. Again, though: I don’t know. Let’s go with a half-credit for Pennywise here. Half a check mark.

The girl from ‘The Ring’ Dreamworks Pictures

Rule 3: A good movie monster should have a distinct flair for fashion.

This is a tiny piece, sure, but it’s a piece nonetheless. A good movie monster needs a very put-together ensemble. It’s important. It’s the difference between showing up to work in a power suit and showing up to work in a bathing suit. One tells everyone that you mean business, and the other tells everyone that you’re a big, dumb idiot. Samara from The Ring has a great outfit. So, too, does the Creeper from Jeepers Creepers. You could even go with an anti-outfit and just be naked like the Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth or the crawlers in The Descent. But it has to be something that’s consistent (and also cool). Pennywise’s clown outfit is a thumbs-up. Check mark here.

GIF of monster walking after a woman in ‘It Follows’ RADiUS-TWC

Rule 4: A good movie monster should either be very fast or very slow.

It can be only one of those two things, because only those two things are scary as far as monster-based kinesiology is concerned. Imagine Jason Voorhees walking toward you. (Scary.) Now imagine Jason Voorhees sprinting toward you. (Scary.) Now imagine Jason Voorhees jogging toward you. (Hilarious.) Jogging is for distance runners, not monsters.

Moving fast is obviously scary because it’s just like, “Oh, fuck. This thing chasing me is going to catch me pretty easily.” And moving slowly is scary for two reasons: (1) because it’s just such a relentless motion. If a thing starts walking after you, you know it’s in it for the long run. You know it’s not going to stop until it gets to you or it dies. That’s what made that movie It Follows (which was all about a monster walking after people) so scary and so intimidating. It just never, ever, ever, ever stopped. (2) It’s also scary because if you take off running and then you turn around and see that the monster is only walking, it starts to feel a lot like, “Wait. What’s this monster know that I don’t? Why is it not that concerned that I’m escaping right now?” That’s a very discomforting feeling.

Pennywise runs fast (and violently), so he gets a check mark here.

A quick note: I am a lot of things, but “hero” is not one of them. If I’m ever in a spot where a monster is chasing my family, and it’s one of those monsters who sprints, I can’t guarantee that I’m going to try to save anyone but myself. I’ll probably shout something at them—maybe, like, “Hey, hurry up! He’s right behind you!” I might even half-heartedly reach out a hand for one of my kids as I sprint past them to safety. That’s about it, though.

Pinhead New World Pictures

Rule 5: A good movie monster should either have a very creepy voice or be 100 percent silent.

As mentioned, the new Pennywise has a fantastic voice. It’s saucy and deliberate and in the moments when he holds onto words just a little longer than he should, it really is something special. (The easiest example to point out is when he and Georgie are talking and he offers Georgie his boat back and as he holds the boat out for him to grab, he says, “Take it”—except he waits about three weeks to finish saying “it.”) After about two sentences, it’s clear Pennywise’s belongs in the upper echelon of movie-monster voices, right alongside Candyman’s and The Babadook’s. He’s good here. Check mark.

(In one especially unsettling moment during his conversation with Georgie, Pennywise lets just the tiniest amount of drool drip past his buck teeth and off his swollen lower lip as he works his way into Georgie’s trust. It’s cringeworthy, but in the best kind of way.)

(The worst movie-monster voice that’s supposed to be good is Pinhead’s from Hellraiser. It’s just a little too regular.) (A quick sidebar: Several years ago—this was back when I was freelancing for the alt-weekly in Houston—I was at a nightclub covering some event and it was Halloween and so everyone was dressed up and one of the people there was dressed as Pinhead. His costume was impeccable, a fact I made sure to point out to him. He and I ended up hanging out for a bit and he was just a real delight.)

Jason Voorhees Paramount Pictures

Rule 6: A good movie monster should have some sort of weapon that it’s often associated with.

If we were giving names to each of these rules, this one could probably be called something like the Halloween Rule: If, when you’re trying to dress up as a movie monster for Halloween, you don’t know what weapon you should pair with your costume, then it’s likely not an elite movie monster. Jason had the machete. Michael Myers had the big kitchen knife. Freddy Kreuger had the glove. So on and so forth.

It might be a bit of a cheat move, but I think Pennywise slides by here on account of his teeth being his weapon. Check mark.

Pennywise with the red balloon New Line Cinema

Rule 7: A good movie monster should have some sort of signal to announce its arrival.

What I mean is that the viewer should know when it’s about to make an appearance. Lots of movie monsters have a musical cue that lets you know that death is nearby. (Probably the most underrated one is that crackling gurgle noise that you hear in The Grudge before someone … *makes that gesture where you drag your index finger across your throat to signify that someone died.*) In It, they use a red balloon. Easy category. Pennywise is good here. Check mark.

GIF of Freddy Krueger New Line Cinema

Rule 8: A good movie monster should have a weakness that’s really not even a weakness at all.

Freddy Krueger is the best example here. His weakness is that he can kill you only in your sleep, and so of course in every movie someone gets the idea to just stay awake, and that sounds like a good idea until they realize that it’s impossible to stay awake for longer than a handful of days. (A man named Randy Gardner holds the world record for staying awake. He made it just over 11 days.) In It, Pennywise’s main weakness is that people have to be afraid of him for him to be effective, though that hardly seems like a problem, what with the whole I Am Everything You’ve Ever Been Afraid Of thing he has going on. So he’s good here, too. Check mark.

By my count, that puts Pennywise at having earned 7.5 of the eight possible check marks, as he lost only half a check mark in the background-section category. Book it: Pennywise gets inducted into the Perfect Movie Monsters fraternity.